JFK, Tucson and Fear

In the wake of the Tucson shootings and liberal concerns about political rhetoric, our honorable opposition on the right has taken to yelling, “FOUL!” Right-wing commentators claim that progressives’ concerns about rhetoric aren’t real concerns; they’re politics. This scream has been so powerful it has sucked the air out of the post-Tucson debate.

The problem is that conservatives are missing the point. Their protest is based on a false premise, at least it’s false if I’m the liberal under discussion. My alarm about the words, images and narratives of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Tea Party leaders is not a ploy to win elections or to triumph in policy debates. My concern comes from my own raw fear.

It has taken me 18 days to sort out my feelings, and I still haven’t completed the task. It would have been so much easier if I were not on a quest for goodness.  Because of my mission, I couldn’t give in to the rage that marked my first reaction to the shootings of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Christina Green and too many others. I’ve written and thrown out, revised and deleted, and all the time kept asking myself: What can I possibly say that will lead to the greatest good?

The only answer I’ve been able to find is to write about how I feel. That’s because I’ve realized during my seven-month quest that goodness can’t be based solely on  intellect. Understanding goodness with intellect alone produces a clean, safe, academic idea of goodness – goodness as theory only.

But human goodness doesn’t show up in our lives in theory. Human goodness is called upon to appear in blood soaked supermarket parking lots and in the seconds, minutes and days afterwards. Real human goodness, as opposed to theory, is created by each of us in what we say and do as our hearts pound, our mouths parch and our blood rises in fury.

Stay with me now as I disconnect from my intellect and follow the white rabbit of emotion down a deep, dark hole. As you do so, remember that I’m talking about emotion, and feelings may or may not mirror reality.

On Saturday, Jan. 8, I was at my computer when my inbox pinged, and I saw the New York Times news alert about the shooting. Not again, I thought, but felt oddly calm.  Senseless but far removed from me, 1,200 miles away to be exact.

And then I learned that the central target of the shooting was a Democrat. (I’m a Democrat), a woman (I’m a woman), pro-LGBT equality (I’m a lesbian), and that a 9-year-old girl had been shot dead. (A girl? They shot a little girl?!)

And here’s where my thoughts went: The scene isn’t Tucson, it’s Garden, City, Mich., and I’m 11 years old. I’m sitting at my desk in the 6th grade,  eagerly awaiting the last bell. The safety boys have already donned their white belts and are heading out. They click on their transistor radios as they always do, but on Nov. 22, 1963, they don’t immediately go to their posts. They stop suddenly in the corridor, the classroom door ignored and closing behind them.

Even with the door shut, we hear them cry out, and then the PA system crackles. The principal announces that President Kennedy has been shot and is being taken to a hospital. My family never prays, but I pray fervently that JFK will be all right. When I get home, my mother is crying as she tells me Kennedy is dead.

When shots rang out on Jan. 8 with a Democrat as the target, I also remembered the year I turned 14. Three weeks before my birthday, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead. Two months after my birthday, Robert F. Kennedy was shot dead. (I awoke to the sounds of his assassination coming out of my father’s radio as he shaved in the bathroom across the hall. I opened my eyes and lay confused as I heard the screams of a crowd and an announcer’s voice telling me that Bobby Kennedy had been killed, except the announcer kept calling Bobby “John” and then correcting himself.  I was awake, yet in an endless nightmare where “They” kept killing the people I liked and none of us, not even the guy on the radio, could keep it straight about which one “They” had actually shot this time.)

When I heard the news about Tucson, here’s also what I saw in my mind’s eye: Rifles slung over the backs of men attending political rallies, and these men shouting their hatred of my ideas and every politician I admire. Calls for “second amendment solutions” and even less thinly veiled urgings for violent action against America’s enemies (AKA me and my friends).

All of this comes after eight years of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and their constant attacks on my patriotism and my humanity. Our sin then, as it is now, is that we disagree with them on policy issues.  And I can’t think of Bush without wondering, as I have many times, where our politics would be, where the United States would be, if the top liberal leaders of a generation hadn’t been gunned down.

At the instant I realized that yet another Democrat had been shot, I thought that “They” were doing it again. The fact that the shooter may be mentally ill didn’t even occur to me. The fact that Republican Ronald Reagan had also been shot in 1981 didn’t penetrate my pain and decades-old frustration. “They” had assassinated our leaders in the past, and “They” were doing it again. So yes, my initial response to Tucson was to look around for conservatives to condemn.

Who really is to blame for Tucson? Does anyone other than gunman Jared Loughner share even a tiny bit of responsibility? Ask me that question again in 20 years, and I may have a definitive answer.

What I do know today is that I live in fear that rhetoric will turn into action. The  militancy of the American right scares me. I worry that I’m in the crosshairs along with Giffords and anyone else who disagrees with the right. And I worry that the right is using the threat of violence to intimidate the left. (Why else would you openly carry a rifle to a political rally, except as a threat?) I fear that gun-soaked words and the Beckian drumbeat of “liberal treason” is providing a rationale for unbalanced people to pick up guns and use bullets to “liberate” the United States.

I wish I was only playing politics when I talk about political rhetoric. And I pray, deeply and sincerely, that I’m just a fool to be so afraid.

*****

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9 Responses to JFK, Tucson and Fear

  1. Carolyn says:

    Remarkable words, Diane.

  2. Rob Ramcharan says:

    You’re probably going to find what you look for.

  3. A lot of people (Democrats, Republicans, and None of the Above) are concerned that animal rights activists, Muslims and minority activists urging the kind of violent retaliation Palin wishes on her political opponents would have been jailed before they had the opportunity to target incumbent Congress people with gun sights. In the name of equal justice, there is a petition at http://www.PetitionOnline.com/IndictSP/petition.html – which calls for the Dept of Justice to indict Palin for incitement to violence.

    • dianesilver says:

      Although I moderate comments, I almost always post whatever anyone says as long as it isn’t spam. I welcome all ideas to the search for goodness. That’s why I allowed this comment to post, even though I disagree with it. My take is that Palin should be far more careful with her rhetoric. She should consider the impact of her words, and she should be subjected to strong verbal critique. However, I believe that the consequences of Palin’s words should be political, not judicial. I do not believe Palin should be indicted. I’m also concerned that making this kind of unreasonable demand undermines valid political criticism of political speech. Needless to say, I’m not signing the petition.

  4. Rob Ramcharan says:

    I think it’s fair to say that calls for “civility” in the public debate are really no more than an invitation for conservatives to shut up. It seems to evoke a different response when leftist/progressives invoke Nazi imagery (see, http://tiny.cc/mcom1 ). or when liberal talk-radio hosts call for the deaths of conservative public figures (see, http://tiny.cc/vqk0u ).
    What I haven’t decided is, is this because liberals expect conservatives to take their own words seriously and then act on them (Which would explain how it’s respectable for Dr. Bramhall to claim that not only was the U.S. Government behind the 9-11 attacks, and that American intelligence services are murdering U.S. postal workers, but anyone who disagrees with President Obama on substantive policy issues is some kind of birther lunatic) or because claiming the moral high ground is just the quickest way to take power?
    Either way, I’m disappointed.

    • dianesilver says:

      Rob,

      I can’t talk for every progressive and/or liberal, but I can speak for myself. Any call I make for civility is not an “invitation for conservative to shut up.” If I wanted conservatives to shut up, I’d use words much more laden with violence than I do, I’d threaten to hurt conservatives if they disagreed with me, I’d talk about the need for revolution and “second amendment remedies,” and I wouldn’t approve your comments for publication on my blog, Rob.

      I’m on a personal search for goodness. The topic of this thread is goodness in politics. For me personally to practice goodness in the realm of politics, I feel that I have to do several things:

      * Don’t paint with such broad strokes that I’m saying every one of my political opponents has the same motivation. I don’t know about you, but in my entire life, I’ve never seen any group of people where all of its members have the exact same motive, whether they are liberals or conservatives.

      * Don’t claim that all members of a group think the same. In other words, I do not believe that all conservatives want to use “second amendment remedies.” At the same time, I am not Dr. Bramhall, whoever the heck that is, and it doesn’t sound like I would agree with him or her.

      * Understand that disagreement about issues of public policy is normal, and that the fact that someone disagrees with me doesn’t make my political opponent a traitor or my enemy. We are all citizens who disagree about the best tactics to use to make this a great country. You’re not a traitor, Rob, and I would never say you are. I merely disagree with you on some political issues. I suspect that there may even be issues that we agree on.

      * When I find myself being confused and confounded by my emotions — as I was after the Tucson shootings — then I believe it is my responsibility to dive into my own psyche to try to understand what I’m feeling. I do no good for myself or the rest of the country by adding to the blame game and anger in the aftermath of an event like Tucson. Instead, I tried to take a different path in this post.

      First, I waited weeks before posting to get a better idea of what I felt. Second, I wrote about my emotions and fears as emotions and not as if they were fact. The fact that I fear something doesn’t make that thing true. What I was hoping to do in this post was to examine why Tucson and its aftermath frightened me so much. I was hoping to even show that my fears had led me to misperceive reality (I kept thinking that only Democrats have been shot, and forgot the nearly successful assassination attempt against Ronald Reagan.)

      At the same time, I don’t want to dodge other hard truths, and one of those is that the top liberal leaders of a generation were assassinated. This fact — and the fact that conservatives like Reagan have also been shot — shows that sometimes Americans lose their way. Sometimes we forget that politics is about disagreements and isn’t war. And I worry that talking as if a political disagreement is a war can lead to some people to act as if it were a shooting war.

      I may not have written this post clearly enough. If so, then I failed as a writer. But all of that was my attempt here. I don’t want to silence anyone, but I don’t want people to understand that when I, Diane Silver, talk about political rhetoric, I’m speaking real fear, and I’m not playing politics.

      The bottom line, Rob, is that I’m not your enemy, but I don’t think we understand each other very well.

      Take care.

      • dianesilver says:

        I hate typos! The end of that comment is supposed to be…

        I may not have written this post clearly enough. If so, then I failed as a writer. I don’t want to silence anyone, but I DO want people to understand that when I, Diane Silver, talk about political rhetoric, I’m speaking real fear, and I’m not playing politics.

        The bottom line, Rob, is that I’m not your enemy. On the other hand, I don’t think we understand each other very well.

        Take care.

      • Rob Ramcharan says:

        Don’t feel bad. I remembered that Gerald Ford survived one assassination attempt, but I had completely spaced off the second one a couple of weeks later. Also, it turns out that Judge Roll, who was killed in the Tuscon incident, was appointed to the Federal bench by George W. Bush. So, I don’t think it was a political issue as much as it was a deranged killer issue. If Mr. Loughner had lived in a Republican district, the public conversation would have been different.

  5. Pingback: Owning Our Dark Side | In Search of Goodness

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